Lifestyle

How to Structure Your Nutrition to Support Your Performance Goals Part 2: Micronutrients, Timing, & Supplements

Mark Howley

[7-min read]

Following on from Part 1 where we discussed how to set appropriate targets for your calories and macronutrients, in this article we will be discussing how to structure your nutrition to support your performance goals with a focus on the top of the pyramid – food quality (micronutrients), food timing and supplements in supporting your training and performance. While less important than energy and macronutrients at the base of the pyramid it is still important to understand them and the role they can play in improving health and performance.

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The Hierarchy of Importance for Sports Nutrition

Food Quality (Micronutrients) 

There can be a lot of different definitions when it comes to food quality, but in this context, I have used it to refer to the nutrient density of the food. In general, when a food is nutrient dense and minimally processed this might be referred to as higher quality compared to a food that is highly processed and of lower nutrient value. Food quality isn’t the only factor to consider of course but having a diet that consists mainly of minimally processed nutrient-dense foods (examples listed below) can definitely help support your general health and performance.

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When talking about food quality it’s important to mention micronutrients. Micronutrient is a term to describe vitamins and minerals that are needed for optimal health and performance. We discussed macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and fats) in the last article. “Macro” as they are nutrients that have to be eaten in larger amounts. Micronutrients, however, are nutrients that are needed in smaller amounts.

In sports nutrition, it can be very easy to focus only on macronutrients. This isn’t necessarily an issue because as we discussed they are quite important for supporting performance but it’s important to be aware of the roles vitamins and minerals play in our health and performance. While there are many roles here are two examples:

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When looking to improve the quality of the food in your diet some of the following can help:

  1. Add servings of fruit or vegetables with each meal
  2. Homecook whenever possible
  3. Opt for food items with fewer ingredients (but don’t fear longer ones)
  4. Try to get all of your important nutrients through food before taking supplements

IMPORTANT NOTE: Around training and competition, calories and macros and how you’re feeling going into it are going to be most important, so if that means reducing the ‘food quality’ that’s ok!

Food Timing 

Focusing on food timing isn’t going to be essential for every sport and every scenario so it’s important not to get too caught up in it. There are going to be some events/sports that will require more of a focus on food timing than others especially where performance is the priority.

There are of course sports and forms of exercise where the main goals relate to improving physical and mental health, overall well-being, and maybe even increasing calorie expenditure for fat loss for example. Meal timing is evidently not as important, if at all for these individuals. However, as with everything in this article, this will be influenced by the individual.

Even if you’re a casual runner just running for enjoyment it’s still possible to suffer with IBS and get an upset stomach from running. While this might come down to food choices too, considering the timing of the meal will be a good idea here. Eating a big meal 5 minutes before a 5 km run probably isn’t advisable, even for the most casual runner.

In another scenario for a casual gym-goer, that approach of a big meal 5 minutes before resistance training might actually work well. When there is more of an emphasis on performance outcomes it might be worth paying a bit more attention to the timing of certain meals/nutrients. Consuming protein post-training can help improve recovery and training adaptations or ensuring you’ve eaten enough carbohydrates before competition can help enhance performance on the day. 

Here are some pre and post-training considerations in optimising performance:

PRE-TRAINING
1Fuel for the work required
The first thing you need to do is ensure you’re consuming enough calories and carbohydrates in the days prior and during the session.
2Adjust carbohydrate intake
Carbohydrates provide the primary fuel for our working muscles, especially if the intensity of your session is at or above 60% of your maximum intensity.
3Eat your final meal 2-4 hours beforehand
Ensure you give yourself enough time to digest the meal. This depends on the person but giving yourself 3-4 hours for a large meal might be a good idea.
4Have a pre-workout snack if needed
A lighter carbohydrate-based snack can be consumed closer to the session if needed. 3-4 hours can be a long time without eating so you might be hungry without a snack.
5Use a supplement if needed
Pre-workout supplementation can be helpful to provide carbohydrates, stay on top of hydration, or improve training capacity.
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Examples of acute fuelling strategies (Carbs) in special situations

SITUATIONTARGETS
Carb-Loading
In the day or two before a game going for a more aggressive carb-loading approach to carb-loading can make sure you’re properly fuelled
7-12g/kg per day
Pre-Game
Top up on carbs before the game
1-4g/kg eaten 1-4 hours before the game
During Game
Moderate game demands lasting 60-90mins
30-60g/hour
During Game
Longer more intense games or athletes that haven’t fuelled properly beforehand
60-90g/hour

Supplements

Supplements are at the top of the pyramid which means we should only be considering them once we’re happy all the other tiers are in order. However, some deficiencies are worth considering – over 50% of athletes have inadequate levels Farrokhyar et al., (2015); Maroon et al., (2015). The following diagram can help in making the decision on whether or not you should consider supplementing.

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Deciding whether or not to use supplements

If you do get to the point where it feels appropriate to start supplementing it’s important to work with a professional in making any decisions where possible. It’s also important to make sure that any supplement is safe and approved for use in sports, especially if you’re in a sport that is regularly tested. Examine.com and Informed-Sport are two great resources to use for more information on their efficacy, safety, and use in sports.

The table below outlines 5 evidence-based supplements that I generally recommend to athletes, with dosage recommendations and some considerations. It’s important to note these may vary depending on context and the individual. There is an extended table on my website with some information about supplements, but again I want to emphasise the importance of working with a professional before making the final decision.

Supplements Table

SUPPLEMENTPOTENTIAL
BENEFITS
DOSETIMINGCONSIDERATIONS
CREATINE– Increased strength and power
– Improved performance in explosive movements
– Improved recovery
5g/dayNot important– Stomach upset
– Weight gain
WHEY PROTEIN– Muscle building and repair
– Convenient high-quality protein source
Depends on the individualPost-exercise or any time– Stomach upset
– Preferable to take a “food-first” approach
VITAMIN D– Healthy immune function
– Bone health
– May improve strength
2500-4000 IU/dayNot important– Take with fat source to increase absorption
– Common for athletes to be deficient
CAFFEINE– Increases alertness
– Reduces reaction time
– Lowers perceived difficulty of exercise
– Spares muscle glycogen
– Improves endurance
2-6mg/kg BWAt least 1 hour before exercise– May disrupt sleep
– Affects people differently
– Mild diuretic
-Important to test dosages outside of competition
FISH OILS– Anti-inflammatory
– Healthy immune function
– May facilitate strength gains
Depends on the individualNot important– Algae as a vegetarian alternative

Summary

When looking at all the above information and everything discussed in Part 1 it’s very easy to become overwhelmed when it comes to your nutrition. Using the tiered approach can help guide what needs to be prioritised first, once you’re happy there you can move up to the next tier. Similarly, as discussed throughout this blog there are a lot of nuances involved and the individual must be considered so it might make sense to start general, then once you’re happy the general recommendations have been met or at least used to give the structure you can start working towards a more individual approach and making adjustments where needed to suit you and your specific situation. Your nutritional demands will always be evolving, your goals might change or even the demands of your training might change so it’s likely there will be adjustments needed in the future also so hopefully keeping these points in mind can help guide decision-making now and in the future.

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Nutrition Performance Sports Nutrition

About the author

Mark Howley

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